Manufacturing is the process of making things. Sustainable manufacturing is the process of making things in a way that solves social and environmental problems.
The unsung story of African scientific innovation is that it is driven first by a social and environmental concern, second by responsible profits. Because of this, the driving force for innovation is what will do the most good, instead of what does the market want. The famed design elements of Apple's philosophy (give people what they don't know they need) are celebrated in electronics but ignored in the African scientist.
At CSTI we have the privilege of working with top scientific talent from Kenya and across Africa. Housed at University of Nairobi's Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation, CSTI is a project of the Kenya National Academy of Sciences which is in turn a part of the African Academy of Sciences. Within CSTI, innovation is a process of discovery as much as it is a process of creation.
Let us examine the discovery process for bioplastics. Thus far, our innovation projects have begun with a request from the community, instead of a request from investors. A community approaches CSTI: We have a very big problem with [challenge]. It is causing health problems and loss of our traditional economic activities. We don't know if Climate Change is the cause but we want you to help us with the solution.
In the case of water hyacinth, Climate Change contributes to making the problems caused by the invasive weed worse but the cause of the problem is the runoff from agricultural activities and human waste. The loss of fishing ground has as much to do with over fishing as it has to do with the spread of the invasive weed. The request to solve the problem is an enormous challenge because finding an effective commercial use of water hyacinth must be done in a way that, at a minimum, does not make the existing problems worse.
For example: eradicating water hyacinth would be a a scientific breakthrough, BUT, if the runoff from agriculture and human waste is not stopped, the lake's ecosystem will collapse. Currently, the invasive weed is protecting the Lake Victoria from the abuse of human activity. We know that the technical scientific challenge can always be overcome with time but the constraints arising from human demands tend to be more difficult to resolve. We view constraints as a limitation on the direction of scientific innovation.
Economic Constraints: We can create a biodegradable plastic using water hyacinth but, in order to be commercially viable, the plastic cannot biodegrade immediately on contact with our equatorial sunshine.
Environmental Constraints: When it comes to industrial plastic, we still want the plastic to last for at least 30 years (example - water pipes). Hence, the real question is not how to accelerate the natural biodegradation process but rather how to create a customized biodegradation process that varies by the type of commercial use that is desired.
Social Constraints: Most importantly, if we are to solve the problem of excessive human activity and we know rapid population growth tends to increase the reckless behaviour that causes environmental devastation, to what extent can we design the production process for water hyacinth biodegradable plastic in a way that forces a shift towards environmental stewardship?
As you can see, what we call the African scientific approach does not ignore the market demand for plastics. Instead, we look at the root causes of underlying problems caused by the market demand and we work towards designing a corrective fix as we design the new product. Instead of a race against teams wishing to prove to be the first in the world to create a biodegradable plastic, we race against time to find the most effective way to solve the problems.
If the design of the latest iPhone with a planned obsolescence cycle of 3 years is worthy of investor support, we are confident the design of holistic solutions with a planned improvement cycle of 20 years is equally worthy of long-term investment.
Invest in the improvement of socio-technical conditions, invest in African scientists.
Feel free to contact us for opportunities to support our flagship research projects.
Our current bio-economy R&D portfolio has opportunities costing between $5M to $30M. The research pathways are bio-degradable plastics, lignocellulosic biorefinery, green chemistry water purification and specialty chemicals. All projects are pre-feasibility (i.e. not market ready) stage. Anticipated commercial readiness ranges from 5 years to 15 years.
We define planned improvement impact as the anticipated duration of the solution once released to the market (i.e. human activity will inevitably create new problems that will eventually make the launched solutions obsolete). We prefer to work with social impact investors who are able to develop bio-economy market channels for the products we develop. Our experience has shown that a close early collaboration between scientists and market makers reduces the cost of changing product specifications after the feasibility phase is complete. We fully embrace the market as an additional constraint on the direction of scientific innovation.
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